Many older Americans are worried about developing memory loss and dementia, especially if they have relatives with those conditions, according to a new National Poll on Healthy Aging from the University of Michigan.
Yet very few of them have talked with their doctor about evidence-based strategies for preventing cognitive decline, the poll found.
Instead, a large majority of the adults who were polled said they take supplements or solve puzzles to keep their brains healthy — two strategies that have not been shown to be effective at enhancing memory or warding off dementia.
The poll’s findings are troubling for they suggest that many Americans are missing out on the most helpful ways of keeping their brain healthy as they age.
“While many people in this age range expressed concerns about losing memory, and say they take active steps to prevent it, most haven’t sought advice from medical professionals, who could help them understand which steps actually have scientific evidence behind them,” says Dr. Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan who helped design the poll and analyze its results, in a released statement.
“Many people may not realize they could help preserve brain health by managing their blood pressure and blood sugar, getting more physical activity and better sleep, and stopping smoking,” he added.
Many worry about getting dementia
For the poll, which was conducted last October, University of Michigan researchers interviewed a representative sample of 1,028 adults aged 50 to 64. Respondents were asked a series of detailed questions, including ones about their perceptions regarding their current brain health, their worries about developing dementia, and any strategies they use to maintain or improve their memory.
One in three of the respondents (34 percent) said their memory was as good as it was when they were younger, while 59 percent said it was slightly worse, and 7 percent said it was much worse.
People who reported exercising several times a week or who said they had a healthy diet, got enough sleep and kept socially active were more likely to report their memory as being as good as during their younger years. Those who reported having poor physical or mental health or poor hearing were more likely to say that their memory was worse.
About half of the respondents (48 percent) said they felt they were likely to develop dementia as they aged, and almost as many (44 percent) said they were worried about that happening.
As Maust and his colleagues point out, however, the risk of dementia is much lower than that perception. Research suggests that less than 20 percent of people who reach the age of 65 will develop Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or other conditions that cause a significant loss in memory and a decline in cognitive abilities.
The third of the poll’s respondents who had a history of dementia in their families or who had cared for a loved one with dementia were especially worried about developing dementia. Seventy-three percent of them thought it likely or very likely that they would be diagnosed one day with the condition compared to 32 percent of those with no family history of dementia.
Few discuss dementia with their doctor
Despite this widespread worry, only 5 percent of all the people polled — and 10 percent of those with a family history of dementia — said they had discussed ways to prevent memory loss or other types of cognitive decline with their doctor.
Yet almost three in four of the respondents (73 percent) reported either doing crossword puzzles or other brain games or taking some type of vitamin or supplement to maintain or improve their memory. Fish oil or omega-3 supplements were particularly popular, with one in three (32 percent) of the respondents saying they took them to keep their brain sharp.
Those strategies have not been shown to help with that goal, however.
“No major research studies support the effectiveness of supplements to enhance memory,” the researchers write in their report on the poll’s findings. “Doing crossword puzzles and brain games may be enjoyable and, as opposed to some supplements, poses no health risks, yet similarly little evidence exists to support that these activities reduce the risk of dementia.”
What does help reduce that risk?
“Studies have shown that engaging in physical activity may be helpful for preventing dementia, along with controlling diabetes, quitting smoking, managing hypertension, and addressing hearing loss,” the researchers explain.
“Many adults age 50-64 could benefit from discussing these strategies with their doctors to address their concerns about future memory loss,” they add. “Providers, patients, and family members should seize opportunities to discuss concerns about dementia and evidence-based preventive strategies.”